My friend Sasquatch told me the climb up James Peak almost made him quit backpacking. He's a strong hiker with many miles of experience, so that wasn't the most reassuring thing I might want to hear before making the same climb today.
It's difficult to make comparisons of one person's hiking experience to another, though. For instance, I don't know what kind of weather Sasquatch faced, how much weight he was carrying in his pack, and how much training he had done before the climb. I don't even know what direction he went on the climb.
|Date||Tuesday, June 29, 2021|
|Weather||Cloudy, with brief periods of rain and sleet; temperatures from low-30s to low-50s|
|Trail Conditions||A steep climb and a long descent with snow and talus, followed by another climb|
Anyway, we already knew the big climb ahead for today wasn't going to be easy, but at least we didn't make it harder by trying to do it yesterday. We stopped short of the mountain so we wouldn't have to climb it in the middle of a thunderstorm.
Of course, we didn't expect that storm would change to ice and snow later, which it did when the temperature dropped around sunset.
The precipitation stopped sometime after midnight. The temperature was still close to freezing when I woke up.
OldTimer, Top O', and I packed our gear quickly. A layer of wet slush was on my tent, which had to be shaken off before I could fold and stow the tent in my pack.
We left together a few minutes before 7 a.m. and began walking up the road to reconnect with the CDT. Soon after we started walking, I looked to the northwest and saw the town of Fraser in the valley below us. The town wasn't visible yesterday because we were surrounded by storm clouds.
The clouds were lifting now, though not surprisingly, that soon changed.
As we climbed toward Rogers Pass, I thought I saw James Peak, but I was mistaken. Instead, I was looking at the frosty top of Parry Peak. It stands at 13,391 feet above sea level, barely taller than its 13,294-foot neighbor, James Peak.
The mountain ahead was not completely covered in snow, but it had a steep slope. Until I realized that wasn't James Peak, I wondered how we would get to the top.
When we met the NOBO hiker named Cayman yesterday, he didn't speak of having any trouble climbing or descending from James Peak, so I figured there must be a good route. Still, he went over it before last night's snow and ice.
We had to continue walking another mile before James Peak came into view. I saw a long shoulder stretching from Rogers Pass, so I knew the approach to the summit wouldn't be as steep as I first worried. The last distance to the top looked steeper, however. It also seemed to have more snow on it than Parry did.
We were still on the road we had walked since Rollins Pass, though it was no longer well-graded as it had been before Rifle Sight Notch. We followed the road to where it ended at the junction with the CDT. We then followed the trail down to Rogers Pass.
The clouds I thought earlier were lifting and thinning were now growing thicker and lower. They were making James Peak look dark and foreboding.
After dipping down to Rogers Pass, the trail began to climb again, passing Haystack Mountain and following a long ridge extending from the shoulder of James Peak. From the ridge, I looked to my left and saw more clouds rolling toward us. These were pushing up from the valley below us.
There were pockets of blue sky here and there, but it seemed like the clouds were determined to close them off.
The climb became much steeper as we continued up. Switchbacks helped make the climb a little less difficult, but the snow wasn't making it any easier.
As the elevation increased, so did the amount of snow on the ground. Three to four inches of power was under our feet now instead of the one inch or so of wet snow and ice we had seen earlier.
Two northbound thru-hikers, Happy and Jacob, appeared as we got closer to the summit. Other than Cayman, they were the first NOBO hikers we had seen in several days.
The clouds I saw earlier building from the valley below were now colliding with the mountain. They slammed into a crag near the summit, then spilled and swirled over the peak. Seeing the clouds do this was like watching water pour up.
The last push to the top was the most difficult because it was the steepest and on the most snow. Looking up, I could see OT make a turn on the last switchback to the top.
There was no visibility at first when I reached the top. Photos were pointless because I was standing in the middle of a thick layer of clouds.
We stayed at the top for about 10 minutes to discuss how we wanted to descend. An alternate route shown on Jonathan Ley's maps followed the actual Continental Divide. It went over two more peaks, Mt. Bancroft and Parry Peak. Though this would be a more difficult route than the CDT, it would trim several miles from the official trail. Before the CDT was improved in this section, the alternate was a route many thru-hikers preferred.
As I read Ley's description of the alternate, I noted how he put the word "trail" in quotes. That seemed like a tipoff this was more of a suggestion than a real footpath.
Ley also said the route was "spectacular," but warned that some scrambling would be necessary. Considering the added difficulty we've already had climbing on snow, we had enough information to know we should take the long way down on the CDT.
As we left the summit, the thick clouds that had been pouring up from the valley began to clear. They were still crashing into the side of the mountain, but now they lifted higher. As they did this, partial views opened to the surrounding mountains and valleys.
The descent from the top was long, and at first, precarious. The difficulty was because of the snow covering the rocky trail. I slowed down to make sure each step was planted carefully. I didn't want to slip and fall hard on the rocks.
There were no trail markers or cairns to follow on the descent. The snow made it hard to find the trail at times, but Happy and Jacob's footprints helped guide the way.
The clouds prevented us from seeing Mt. Bancroft when we were on top of James Peak. After descending part of the way down, the clouds had cleared enough for me to see it well. I realized then that the alternate suggested on Ley's map, which included going over that mountain, would have been foolish for us. We had made the right call.
The climb from Rogers Pass to the top of James Peak was 1,500 feet in 1.7 miles. The descent was much longer and not as steep. It dropped 3,000 feet in 4.5 miles. Fortunately, not all of that distance was over snow.
When we descended low enough to be out of the snow, we talked about finding a spot for a yard sale, as in a place to spread out our gear to dry.
An ideal spot never appeared, but we decided to stop and try a yard sale anyway. Sunshine was hitting the mountain now, and we hoped some of that would soon come our way.
Instead, more clouds moved in, and soon we were hit by sleet and rain. We packed up and began walking again.
We reached a road near Fall River at 1:30 p.m. This was the bottom of the descent from James Peak. The rain had stopped by then, and though there wasn't any sunshine, we decided to try again with a yard sale.
Our gear didn't dry much, but it was a worthwhile stop nonetheless. A couple driving by stopped to talk and offered us some beer. A few minutes later, another couple stopped and gave us apples.
When we decided our gear was never going to completely dry, we prepared to pack and go. That's when I got a text message from Doggone. He asked where we were. Funny enough, he was only a quarter mile away from us, so we waited until he arrived
Doggone was still walking northbound. Although he was hiking more miles per day than us, he was still taking days off here and there when he and Taxilady moved their camper to a new location. Overall, it seemed, he was hiking at about the same pace we were.
He told us he was thinking about trying to cross James Peak today, but we thought this was a little too ambitious. We warned him that the climb wasn't trivial, though perhaps it was better now if most of the snow had melted.
Doggone told me later when I talked to him again that he did summit James Peak and pushed on to the other side of the mountain. He didn't stop until after midnight.
The time was past 3 p.m. when Doggone left and we started walking again. We had to continue up the road for nearly a mile before picking up a single-track trail.
Clouds were getting darker now, though they didn't look like storm clouds.
The first mile on the single-track was perfectly constructed with a modest elevation change. This was notable because I haven't seen many sections of the CDT built so well. That's not to say it's all been bad, but this part of the trail was exceptional.
The climb for the next couple of miles was sometimes steep until the trail entered a wide, grassy park. Witter Peak stood ahead and was the only mountain that wasn't obscured by clouds, which continued to darken.
No rain fell from those clouds, though. We found a place to camp that was near a stream flowing from Bill Moore Lake. Tonight was the first time in many days that neither rain nor mosquitoes forced us to cook and eat in our tents.
Amid all that was going on today, I was able to make some plans with Sasquatch. He told me he cut short his hike in South Dakota. He offered to pick up the three of us tomorrow at Berthoud Pass and take us to his house. That will be a nice break after some difficult days.
Climbing James Peak today was hard, though I can't say it made me want to quit backpacking. No mountain has beaten me so far. Then again, some more difficult ones are yet to come. That includes Grays Peak, which is a 14er. We'll be climbing that in just a few days.
You never know. One of the mountains might be so hard to climb it will make me want to quit.
Nah, that's not going to happen
Other people can go home
Everybody else can split
I'll be here all the time
No, I can never quit